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Purely Honorable

David Mamet's martial arts film "Redbelt" takes a turn toward the tragic. And that's a good thing.

By 5.9.08

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In David Mamet's blistering 2007 essay collection on the praetorian nature of Hollywood, Bambi vs. Godzilla, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and idiosyncratic filmmaker dedicated a chapter to deconstructing the testosterone-addled action film, excoriating its black and white moral lessons and the audience's eagerness to accept such lessons unconditionally.

"If the violence can be construed as just, our perverse entertainment is less despicable," Mamet lamented, eventually raising his broadside against action films to a societal critique, claiming glorified screen violence has "infected and perverted American foreign policy" and attacking the "misconceived false antisepsis of the Vietnam air war, of Grenada, of Iraq I and II" as revealing "an impunity like that of the moviegoer."

Lord! Whether the average fan of Steven Segal or Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson would take umbrage at having "misconceived false antisepsis" of the government laid at the feet of their movie-watching habits is an open question, but the sacred cow premise the director sought to slay, on the other hand, is a beloved American institution:

The viewer is presented with this paradigm: The hero (i.e., you, the viewer, whom he represents) is good. The hero will undergo various struggles in which you, the viewer, will be able to enjoy vicariously his stoicism while undergoing no pain. Your desire to do violence will be pandered to by an incontrovertible presentation of the justice of the hero's cause and by a (ritual) period of initial restraint on his part. This false glow of untried and (in the case of the moviegoer) proxy triumph is the drug of the bully. It seduces the weak-minded and emboldens the arrogant.

Ironic, then, that Mamet's latest film Redbelt proves so spectacularly successful at providing its audience an opportunity to vicariously enjoy the struggles and eventual proxy triumph of a stoic and good hero. That's no minor subplot, either. At times this beautifully executed film, a tale of resistance to corruption set against the backdrop of a Mixed Martial Arts scene slowly losing its innocence to outsiders seeking to co-opt its philosophy for personal gain, feels like a slightly higher-brow version of the classic work of the undisputed master of the proletarian purity-vs.-corruption fight film, John G. Avildsen, the man who brought Rocky, The Karate Kid and The Power of One so vividly to life.

Redbelt is still classic Mamet, to be sure, with the requisite poetically off-kilter dialogue, turn-on-a-dime plot twists and familiar ensemble cast. There has, however, been an undeniable shift in thematic approach. Compare this paragraph from a recent New York Times piece in which Mamet unpacked his reasons for making the film to the one above from Bambi vs. Godzilla:

Fight films are sad. There is nobility in effort, in discipline and, if not in suffering, in trying to live through suffering and endeavor to find its meaning. "Redbelt," generically, is a fight film. The martial art film is about opposing strength to strength: two humans compete, and we are allowed to root for the underdog and enjoy his final victory. But the fight film is a celebration of submission, which is to say, of loss. As such, it finds itself on the outskirts of my beloved genre of film noir. The punchline of drama is "Isn't life like that...." But its elder brother, tragedy, is the struggle of good against evil, of man against the gods. In tragedy, good, and the gods, are proclaimed winners; in film noir, which is tragedy manque, the gods still win, but good's triumph gets an asterisk.

The difference between being "allowed to root for" and "enjoy vicariously" is semantic at best. Such an ostentatious display of righteous violence "construed as just," from a pure hero and presented as noble in the final third of Redbelt apparently suggests a turn toward the tragic, and with it a presumably less morally ambiguous Mamet.

DURING THE POST-SCREENING Q&A with Mamet after the Redbelt premiere in Manhattan, the director explained he saw the film as the story of "a lone man" -- Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejofor) -- "who has to take his purity into a very messy world." Indeed, at the beginning of Redbelt, Terry survives by reputation alone. It is only when financial pressure and personal calamity force him beyond dojo walls that things begin to fall apart and treachery suddenly becomes inexplicably omnipresent.

Still, one would have to be mostly ignorant of the breadth of Mamet's work or, at the very least, unable to get beyond the themes of the endlessly parsed Glengarry Glen Ross to contend pure characters are an entirely new development for the man. Gino, the Italian-American cobbler mistaken for a gangster in Mamet's most underrated film, the sublime Things Change, is as innocent as a newborn. The entire basis of The Winslow Boy is a father willing to lose everything to defend the honor of his young son falsely accused of theft. A fetching small town Vermonter played by Mamet's wife Rebecca Pidgeon fights superficial Hollywood types for the soul of a writer on the verge of selling out in State and Main. ("Go you Huskies!")

Redbelt nevertheless does feel like a departure, perhaps because protagonists in those Mamet films that feature violence or predatory behavior are invariably tarnished by the socially deviant muck they are thrashing around in. Mamet characters in such works frequently wise up to the realities of the world -- but hardly ever evolve into better people. Mike Terry is not perfect, of course, and when discussing the character at the premiere Mamet half-jokingly invoked an old Jewish maxim, "If you don't know what to atone for, look at your good deeds." It's true. The road to Mike's Hell was certainly paved with good intentions.

Yet Mike does not wise up and lose faith in a code that is failing him, but, rather, develops a stronger, more nuanced definition of honor in line with what James Bowman described in his seminal book Honor: A History as "the good opinion of the people who matter to us, and who matter because we regard them as a society of equals who have the power to judge our behavior." He realizes, as Bowman notes, "By their nature, group loyalties will sometimes conflict with loyalties to a wider community and to absolute principles, which is why it is useful to distinguish between honor and ethics."

It is in this "distinguishing" that Mike ultimately achieves a more transcendental understanding of honor and his principles: He abhors and has always eschewed competitive fights, believing such spectacles denigrate the art and philosophy of jiu-jitsu. But what if such a fight becomes the only way to defend the honor of the art or those you love? "A man distracted is a man defeated," Terry tells his students, but it isn't until he is broken completely down that he realizes he has been distracted by the very methods he believed kept him clear.

NO DOUBT THE ELEPHANT in this review is Mamet's essay "Why I am No Longer a Brain Dead Liberal," published last March in the The Village Voice, which has engendered much glee on the right and consternation on the left. When asked point blank at the Manhattan premiere, however, whether Redbelt could be "read politically," Mamet shot back, "It can, but what can't?" The director went on to add the post-9/11 zeitgeist was such that issues of politics and war inevitably color artistic endeavors, but that he had never gone out of his way to shoehorn politics into his work -- "because that's not my place."

Predictably, this attitude is hardly enough to shield his work from politically uncharitable interpretations. A New York Press reviewer, for example, fumed that "Mamet's own hyper-capitalist arrogance confuses movie art with tendentiousness," while Ben Kenigsberg opened his Time Out New York review with the following line: "After torturous screeds on Hollywood doublespeak, the present state of self-hating Judaism and his own abdication of 'Brain dead' liberalism, David Mamet officially exceeds his quota of permissible bulls--t for this decade with this preposterous new shell game..." It went downhill from there.

Interviews with Mamet, however, are filled with his insistent refrain that he sees one of the primary responsibilities of a good writer is to not be predictable. Mamet's work and career bear this out: He has a unique, recognizable, sui generis style, but -- with the possible exception of his con game films -- it has always been widely employed. Although changes in perspective are likely to affect one's art, recently Mamet took to the pages of Playboy to herald the lost arts of "rowdyism," "high spirits," and the martial art of jiu-jitsu, which he has been practicing for several years now.

"In the boxing and the wrestling rings or on the football field," Mamet wrote, "we learned that getting hurt was not the same as dying, that in order to make one's point, sometimes it is necessary to put something at risk, that there is such a thing as will, and that often it will, as Kipling told us, win out when heart and nerve and sinew are gone."

It would have been safe and predictable to make another heist film. It would have been safe and predictable to load a movie down with politics his old and new admirers alike are probably scouring Redbelt for. Instead, Mamet had the will to take a risk, and though Redbelt adopts a different thematic and structural tack than his previous work, it pays off with a vital and compelling film that will both compliment and stand out from his already legendary body of work.

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